By Jacob Fredrickson and Martha Robinson Rhodes on behalf of the MBS postgraduate and early career researcher group.
With MBS 2019 only a week away, the programmes have gone to print, name-tags are on their way, and Birmingham is bracing itself for the biennial arrival of hundreds of British studies scholars for three days of vibrant, inspiring and challenging conversations. We thought it was a good time to introduce in a little more detail what will kick off this year’s conference, a half day session organised by us, postgraduates and early-career researchers working within the Centre for Modern British Studies here at Birmingham.
We firstly want to thank the Centre for again inviting us to kick off discussions and frame the intellectual agenda for the next few days.
This year, we’ve titled our workshop ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’. In doing so, we’re hoping to both provide a welcoming and productive space for junior scholars, and articulate the value and importance of our voices within the field as a whole. This is particularly important at a moment where postgraduates and early-career researchers face increasingly hostile conditions and labour practices.
The issue of precarity and casualisation in academia has been central to our discussions as postgraduates and early career researchers over the last few years. In January 2015, we published a working paper where we argued, “The ongoing shift to a market-based education system (which can be characterised as the neoliberalisation of the University) continues to re-imagine and re-construct the material conditions in which we work…Young academics setting out to write original and insightful PhD dissertations also appear to be the most obvious potential victims of job scarcity, declining research funding and pervasive long working hours.” To explore these issues in more detail, we have hosted a number of conferences exploring the relationship between our working conditions and the sorts of history we’re able to write.
This year, we want to harness the energy of our previous discussions towards a slightly different intellectual enquiry. For our roundtable, ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’, we have asked the speakers to consider contributions that are focused on an aspect of their own research, with precarity as a category of analysis – rather than presentations about precarity per se.
In line with the theme of the wider conference, we want to think beyond boundaries by returning to one of the most vexed historiographical boundaries in our field, the periphery. In this roundtable, we want to return to the periphery in the time of precarity.
Firstly, the ‘time of precarity’ draws our attention to the pressing need to return to the periphery in post-Brexit, neoliberal, imperially nostalgic Britain. Thinking through the boundaries of Britain and of British identity – who gets to be British, who gets to set the boundaries of the periphery itself, where these boundaries are drawn – all of this has a pressing political purpose at a time when national identity is at the centre of a toxic and pernicious politics, with worryingly increasing appeal.
We also want to consider the ‘time of precarity’ in a second sense; the temporalities of our precarious labour. Postgraduates and early career researchers are increasingly expected to do more in less time. This impacts what research we can conduct. From having the time, and money, to visit archives, to balancing teaching with writing on exploitative contracts, precarity marginalises. As MBS PGRs wrote in 2015, ‘we stand on the edge of the academy, it is our precarious position of becoming historians that most keenly reveals the relationships between academic and non-academic, between experts and non-experts, between history and our present moment’.
The periphery in the time of precarity is a useful heuristic to reflect on the impact of our working conditions. We want to stimulate discussion of the periphery utilising precarity, and precarious labour, as a category of historical analysis. How, and in what ways, does our own knowledge becomes privileged or marginalised? How does this shape what can be told about modern Britain?
We have invited six scholars across career stage to reflect on these themes in relation to their own work. It is our hope that this session stimulates a conversation on the relationship between our labour, our working conditions and the limits to what it is possible to know about modern Britain.
Speaking on the roundtable will be:
Lara Choksey, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter
Jonathan Saha, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds
Laura Sefton, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham
Olivia Havercroft, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Manchester
David Geiringer, Associate Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London
Ruby Daily, Postgraduate Researcher at Northwestern University
Following the roundtable, we will be hosting a number of smaller workshops that will run co-currently. These will focus on the practicalities of becoming a scholar within British Studies, including sessions on journal articles, book contracts, and job applications to universities outside of Britain. We have also organised a session for more senior colleagues, exploring practical ways established academics can build solidarity and support junior scholars. Please see the programme for full details on this.
We hope that those who are attending the conference over the three days will attend, even if you aren’t a postgraduate or early-career researcher. Precarity affects us all, and we hope to make clear that the political and historical questions it poses are of pressing importance to the field of modern British studies as a whole.
See you next week!